History by Hollywood

Mar. 26, 2010
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When making a movie on historical evens, is the filmmaker obligated to act as a historian, weighing each fact as if it were gold dust, or is he licensed to make it all up in the interest of spinning a good yarn? As Robert Brent Toplin argues in the new edition of History by Hollywood (published by University of Illinois Press), the answer is “that depends.”

Of course, many of the pundits who weighed into controversies over depictions of the past on film have a simplistic understanding of history. History is seldom merely a compendium of facts lined up in chronological order, but involves analysis and interpretation as well as navigating through gaps in documentation and conflicting evidence. Toplin, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, examines the content and controversy surrounding several Hollywood versions of the past. Of particular interest is his analysis of Mississippi Burning and JFK. In both cases Toplin finds much to praise and condemn.

In Mississippi Burning, British director Alan Parker intuitively understood the class-based emotional roots of American racism, bringing to life that the self-worth of many lower class Southern whites was based on the premise that they stood higher on the social ladder than someone else. Mississippi Burning memorably dramatizes the truth of white terrorism against blacks in the deep South yet relegates blacks to secondary roles in the civil rights movement and falsifies (as well as inflates) the role of the FBI in fighting the KKK.

Oliver Stone’s skills as a filmmaker were never sharper than in JFK, yet the movie sent retired politicians and media gatekeepers running for their muskets—or at least their lexicons of every bad word fit to print in family newspapers that could be hurled at the director. According to Toplin, the biggest problem with Stone’s film is its presentation of New Orleans’ DA Jim Garrison’s dubious investigation into the Kennedy assassination as a valiant quest for truth. In addition, Stone put forward many assertions as if they were fact. If he had framed JFK as mythology, a counterpoint to the official findings of the Warren Commission (which the general public never entirely embraced), Stone would have been on solid ground.

With great insight, Toplin reminds us that the spirit of truth can’t always be confined to exact details (assuming they can be established) and that a great story can help us think more deeply and imaginatively about the importance of our past.


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